Public broadcasting (also known as public service broadcasting or PSB) is the dominant form of broadcasting around the world, where radio, television, and potentially other electronic media outlets receive funding from the public. These funds can come directly from individuals through donations or fees, or indirectly as state subsidies that originated in taxes or other national funding sources. Some public broadcasters supplement this with contributions from corporations, which may be granted a limited amount of advertising time in return. However, when advertisements occur on public broadcasting outlets, they are usually much shorter and less attention-grabbing than on commercial broadcasting stations. Commercial broadcasting only occurs in a handful of large Western countries.
Perhaps the best known public broadcaster is the British Broadcasting Corporation, based in the United Kingdom, whose mission is to "inform, educate and entertain".
Defining public broadcasting
There is no standard definition of what public broadcasting is exactly, although a number of official bodies have attempted to pick out the key characteristics. Public service broadcasters generally transmit programming that aims to improve society by informing viewers. In contrast, the aim of commercial outlets is to provide popular shows that attract an audience—therefore leading to higher prices when advertising is sold. For this reason, the ideals of public broadcasting are often incompatible with commercial goals. Of course, public broadcasters also strive to entertain their viewers, but they can still come across as being overly paternalistic in nature.
The Broadcasting Research Unit lists the following as major goals or characteristics of a public broadcaster:
- Geographic universality - that the stations' broadcasts are available nationwide, with no exception (a criterion failed by Five).
- Catering for all interests and tastes - as exemplified by the BBC's range of minority channels (BBC2, BBC Radio 3, and various digital services), but also by the commercial Channel 4.
- Catering for minorities - much as above, but with racial and sexual minorities etc. (e.g. Channel 4, BBC Asian Network).
- Concern for national identity and community - this essentially means that the stations should in the most part commission programmes from within the country, which may be more expensive than importing shows from abroad.
- Detachment from vested interests and government - in other words, programming should be impartial, and the stations should not pander to the desires of advertisers or government. In practice however, such impartiality is questionable, even with the BBC. Even when a station is removed from corporate and government interests, there may be a sense that it panders to a particular social group (i.e. the middle class that ascribes the values PSB aims to disseminate).
- One broadcasting system to be directly funded by the corpus of users - i.e. the licence fee in the case of the BBC.
- Competition in good programming rather than numbers - quality is the prime concern with a true public service broadcaster. Of course, in practice, ratings wars are rarely concerned with quality, although that may depend on how you define the word "quality".
- Guidelines to liberate programme makers and not restrict them - in the UK, guidelines, and not laws, govern what a programme maker can and cannot do, although these guidelines can be backed up by hefty penalties.
In the modern world, the mass media is tremendously competitive, and as such, it can be difficult for a public service broadcaster to survive amongst commercial interests, especially with the increased number of channels that digital broadcasting provides.
Modern public broadcasting is typically a mixed commercial model. For example, the CBC has always relied on a subsidy from general revenues of the government, and more recently, in the case of the CBC television, advertising revenues, making them competitive with commercial broadcasting. Some argue that this dilutes their mandate as truly public broadcasters, who have no commercial bias to distort their presentation of the news. In most countries in Western Europe, state broadcasters are similarly funded through a mix of advertising and public money, either through a licence fee or directly from the government.
Advantages and disadvantages
A key advantage of public broadcasting is that it can rely on stable management and policies to attract and develop journalistic talent. This tends to make public broadcasters worldwide particularly trusted for reporting news. Even in the United States where there is far more competition for top news anchors, journalists, hosts and commentators, some of its programs, e.g. the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, were widely respected and could attract important people to comment on the issues of the day. Those guests could in turn count on a commitment to balance, and perhaps also more educated questions, which assured them they would not be turned into a public spectacle for the sake of ratings (always a risk in any TV or radio programme.)
Another key advantage of public broadcasting is that a cultural policy (an industrial policy and investment policy for culture) is relatively easy to implement. For instance, the Canadian government commitment to official bilingualism creates stable work at the CBC for translators, journalists who work in French in English regions of Canada, encourages production of cross-cultural material. Some, e.g. Quebec separatists, argue that this is also a policy of cultural imperialism and assimilation. However, this is a criticism of the policy, rather than of the cultural methodology. In the UK, the BBC has also taken a strong stance in favor of multi-culturalism and diversity: many of its on-screen commentators and hosts are of different ethnic origins.
For those who oppose cultural policy on principle, the above arguments are actually arguments against public broadcasting. However, even opponents of government cultural policy (who may state their objection as disagreement with 'culture being shoved down their throat'), rarely object to being exposed to the "cultural policies" of commercial broadcasting: pop culture, law presented as if it were truth, militarism and identification with 'our boys' etc., all manner of culture bias, and consumerism in the form of advertising itself. In public broadcasting, these things can be centrally controlled and limited, or at least openly discussed. Some will say lack of a cultural policy is a policy in itself: commercialism.
An interesting example of this balancing role is the use of the word "terrorism". While commercial broadcasters often use the word as if it were a category one could observe directly, public broadcasters are forced by their very mandate to justify their use of the word - the BBC at one point claimed it would label no one a "terrorist" as they considered it a political term. Throughout the IRA crises, the BBC steadfastly referred to "the IRA", "Republican forces" or to "militants". They avoided the term "terrorist" and even "extremist".
One viewpoint is that some public broadcasting, and also some pirate broadcasting, provides a necessary counterweight to the commercial media. Advocates of deliberative democracy, which requires much 'air-time' and 'feedback' and access to public figures to work, usually consider public broadcasting to be an absolute necessity to the maintenance of a complex modern technological democracy.
Whether one likes it or not, in many nations, public broadcasting is all there is. Where commercial media is allowed at all, it may be seen merely as an avenue for the presentation of commercial products that few in the population can afford and as a cultural policy of foreign 'invasion'. Public broadcasting sometimes serves simply to put voices or languages on the air that may otherwise be completely ignored, and sometimes due to a lack of voice, obliterated. To the degree that rumours and hatred can be dispelled by diligent public broadcasting, it can be seen as a public good. Where it is used to amplify hatred and fear, as dictators have used it, it can even be an instrument to foment genocide.
Accordingly, public broadcasting must probably be managed as carefully as any nation manages its police or military forces. The ability of electronic media to mobilise and motivate the public to a common cause is profound, and its abuse is probably as serious as abuses of force.
Public broadcasting around the world
The original British Broadcasting Corporation, widely trusted even by citizens of the Axis Powers during World War II, was widely emulated throughout the former British Empire and later Commonwealth: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Australian Broadcasting Corporation are simple applications of that model. Also Sveriges Television and Sveriges Radio, the public broadcasters in Sweden are basically an application of the model used in Britain, funded by television licence fees and carrying no advertising. In theory, public broadcasting is not beholden to advertisers, political parties, or the government of the day—and some critics say, it is also not particularly responsive to its viewers.
In Australia, the ABC is funded entirely through a government grant-in-aid, which has made it vulnerable to cuts in government spending. The multicultural Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), Australia's other public broadcaster, now accepts limited sponsorship and advertising. In New Zealand, the former public broadcaster BCNZ (formerly NZBC) was broken up into separate state-owned corporations, Television New Zealand (TVNZ) and Radio New Zealand (RNZ). While RNZ remains commercial-free, TVNZ has been heavily commercialised, leading to accusations of 'dumbing down'.
In the United States the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television network operates on a largely viewer-supported basis, with commercial sponsors of specific programs. Over time, sponsorship announcements have slowly transformed into something resembling regular TV advertisements, though they are usually shorter and have a more muted tone than what is seen on commercial TV, and many organizations still only receive a short thanks for their contributions. Most communities also have public access services on local cable television stations, which are sometimes supported in part through donations. National radio networks include National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Radio International (PRI), and there are many smaller networks serving particular states or regions that are often affiliated with NPR or PRI (the situation is similar with public TV). Public radio stations in the US tend to broadcast a mixture of news and talk radio programming along with some music. Some of the larger operations split off these formats into separate stations or networks. Public music stations are probably best known for playing classical music, although other formats have been used, including the emerging "eclectic" music format that is rather freeform in nature (common among college radio stations, though a well-known eclectic NPR affiliate is KCRW in California).
In the Netherlands a different system is being used. Broadcasting foundations receive time to broadcast their programmes on the television and radio channels, based on the amount of members. This system reflects every population group.
In Canada, several provinces operate public broadcasters in addition to the CBC; these are not CBC subentities, but distinct networks in their own right.
List of public broadcasters